EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Los Angeles Kings are only three games into the 2017-18 National Hockey League season, but with Anze Kopitar scoring three goals and adding three assists for six points, with a +6 plus/minus rating in those games, he is already way ahead of the curve.
Indeed, last season, although the entire team struggled, Kopitar scored just twelve goals. He didn’t score his third goal of the 2016-17 season until December 13, 2016, against the Buffalo Sabres (a 6-3 loss), 23 games into the season.
“I’m happy with my start, and the way things are going right now, but not a whole lot has changed,” said Kopitar. “I had a good off-season. I feel good, and there’s definitely one of those [luck] things going, where you see a couple go in, especially [my] second one in San Jose [a 4-1 win on October 7], when it bounces off the guy’s stick and goes in. That makes you feel good, feel the puck a little bit better, and see the ice a little bit better. You just try to ride the wave as long as you can.”
“I’m getting shots, I’m getting good looks, good chances,” added Kopitar. “It’s just a matter of putting’em in. I’m just going out there, trying to make plays, and stuff has been happening for us, so far.”
As he mentioned, Kopitar’s summer training regimen has played a factor in his fast start.
“I’ve gotten lighter,” he noted. “I just feel good, overall. I feel stronger, well-conditioned. I can move on the ice well, and I feel like I’m a little bit faster. That’s been one of the keys to my start.”
One of the biggest factors in Kopitar’s fast start, not to mention that of his line mates, is the tweaked system the Kings are playing under new head coach John Stevens.
“It’s a little bit more creative,” Kopitar observed. “We have a little bit more freedom, if you will. We’re trying to make plays. We’re not afraid to make plays, and that’s the biggest part. We’re going [into the offensive zone], knowing that we can go in there, even though sometimes, we are going to turn the puck over. That’s just going to happen, but we can’t get discouraged from making plays. That’s been the biggest difference.”
“Any change is welcome when things aren’t going right,” he added. “I’m pretty sure that I can speak for [Dustin Brown and himself]. There’s a little more freedom for us in the offensive zone, and that has refreshed us.”
Getting pucks and bodies to the front of the opposition’s net is something that Stevens stressed would be a priority this season, and so far, that has played a huge role for Kopitar’s line.
“You want to do that as much as you can,” Kopitar emphasized. “You try to be around the net, or screen the goalie, and Brownie has done a phenomenal job, so far, and that’s why he’s getting rewarded. [Alex Iafallo and I] are working the outside a little bit more than he is, but that’s a dynamic that’s resulted in scoring chances and scoring goals.”
“You want to be in front of the net,” Kopitar added. “Tipping pucks, screening the goalie—there are more factors than you actually think. It’s a really good position, even if we have to relieve pressure and go behind the net. It’s just a couple of strides and you’re right there. We’re trying to control the middle, so we want to be there as much as we can.”
As Kopitar alluded to, the most visible player in front of the net for the Kings has been Brown, who has matched Kopitar’s three goals and three assists for six points, with a +6 plus/minus rating.
“He’s a big man with good hands,” said Stevens. “I’ve always liked that combination. He’s a big power forward who’s got a real north-south mentality to his game. He’s got good hands in [the middle of the ice], and the courage to go there. When you see a guy like Brownie, when he’s confident, he seems like he’s handling pucks cleanly in those areas. When he’s lacking confidence, he doesn’t, and right now, he’s confident.”
“He might’ve been our best forward [against Calgary on October 11, a 4-3 overtime loss],” added Stevens. “He was on the puck, puck pursuit, being rewarded with chances the other way. That was a typical, power forward game from Dustin Brown.”
“He’s refreshed, for sure,” Kopitar noted. “The last few years have not been good for him, at all. But I think he’s got a clear head now, and he’s just going out and playing. We all know he was a 30-goal scorer, and I really don’t see a reason he can’t get back there again. He’s playing the power play now, and he’s going to the net like we’re used to [seeing him do], tipping pucks left and right. It’s really good to see.”
Stevens also noted that Brown and Kopitar have been an effective pair for years.
“If you look at the top offensive lines in the league, you have a really good puck possession guy, and you usually have somebody who ends up at the net,” he observed. “Kopi is one of the better puck possession guys in the league, and Brownie likes to get to the net, and drive people back. Because of that, the third player on that line has changed over the years. Alex has been a really good fit there, just because he has a tenacious game, and he gets open in scoring position.”
“When you have a puck possession guy and somebody who goes to the net, that’s almost always a good combination.”
It Takes…Three…To Tango?
In terms of forward lines in hockey, you often have coaches keeping pairs of players together these days. But it takes three forwards to fill out a line, and playing left wing with Brown and Kopitar has been rookie Alex Iafallo, who has done more than hold his own. In fact, he recorded his first NHL point against the Flames, with an assist on Brown’s first goal that night.
“He’s fast, and he can make plays,” said Kopitar. “With his speed, he backs off the defensemen. That creates a little more room for us.”
“He’s been great,” added Kopitar. “He’s been playing hard, he’s not afraid to go into the rough areas, which is really good to see. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before he scores his first goal.”
Stevens has been impressed with Iafallo since July, when the Kings held their annual development camp for their young prospects.
“He’s been terrific,” Stevens noted. “You’re always looking for a pleasant surprise in training camp, and we were cautiously optimistic after seeing Alex in development camp, and then rookie camp. You want to wait to see him with the pros, and see how he does, and if he can be the same player. He’s been able to do that.”
“He’s got a real well-rounded game,” Stevens added. “He’s tenacious. He’s been able to go to the next level of play, not just playing in regular season games, but playing with high-end players and being the same player. That’s what you hope for from every young player, that he doesn’t change his game just because he’s playing with Kopitar, maybe not do the things that are instinctive to him. It’s not often that you see that [from a rookie].”
Even better for the Kings, it took Iafallo no time at all to mesh with Brown and Kopitar.
“It’s weird, because once things click, it doesn’t matter if you play with a guy for a game or two, or if you play with a guy for five years,” Kopitar observed. “You know where he is. Now we’re at that point. We’re reading off each other and making plays. Everybody seems to be in the right position, and that’s why we’re creating chances. That’s what we want to do, and obviously, it’s a lot more fun to play with the puck.”
“You can do all the talking that you want, but once you step on the ice, it’s reading and reacting,” Kopitar added. “You can talk to him and give him pointers, but once he steps on the ice, he’s playing his game. He’s playing to his strengths, and he’s skating really well. His ability to make plays is really high, so we’re just trying to encourage him to make those plays as often as he can.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center and captain Anze Kopitar. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net
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